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6-14, 14-17, 13-19.
Before the arrival of the first-year head coach for the Sun Devils, JJ Van Niel, this was the performance record of Arizona State Volleyball over the previous three seasons.
At the end of the Sun Devil’s 2022 season, six-year head coach Sanja Tomasevic parted ways with the program along with her coaching staff and entered Van Niel with three new assistant coaches at his side.
In his first 14 games with the Sun Devils, Van Niel led the squad to a perfect 14-0 start to the 2023 season before facing its first loss against Stanford on Sept. 29. The Cardinal are currently ranked No. 3 in the nation.
Prior to its mid-season loss, ASU swept ten of its opponents three games to zero and never played in a game that went into the fifth and final set.
An incredibly impressive start for a team that came off a 19-loss season the year prior.
The team’s flawless start encountered significant challenges once Pac-12 play commenced. They recorded losses against Stanford and Oregon State, battled all the way to the fifth set in wins over Cal and USC, beat Washington and swept UCLA, Oregon and Arizona.
With nine returning players in their 2023 lineup, the team boasts a strong core of leaders on the court to contribute to its success.
While the players on the court are credited for ASU’s success so far this season, a team is nothing without a strong head coach at the forefront of its charge.
“I still don’t know why I asked that”
Once a financial expert with multiple jobs in hedge funds and one in investment banking, the USC graduate thought that he had found his forever career, spending a dozen years working in the industry.
By random chance, the world of coaching volleyball fell at Van Niel’s feet.
“One of the nights I was supposed to play in an adult (volleyball) league (but) Coast had a tryout and I didn’t know that our game had been canceled,” Van Niel said. “So, I just randomly was like, ‘Do you guys ever need help?’ I still don’t know why I asked.”
The Coast Volleyball Club in San Diego was all in on the first timer.
Given his financial career’s central role in his schedule, he knew he would not be able to fully commit to full time with the club but was eager to help any way that he could.
“I thought I’d be good at it, probably a little arrogantly and I realized I wasn’t,” Van Niel said. “I just didn’t know what I was doing.”
While Van Niel had experience playing club volleyball and beach volleyball growing up, coaching it was a realm he had never ventured into. It didn’t take long for him to grasp that playing and coaching are distinctly different roles.
As he began to spend more time coaching with the team, he became obsessed.
Starting off in a role that came with no compensation, he quickly found a spot in a head coach position for the elite travel teams of the club.
He started dedicating more and more time to his coaching position and was soon fully committed to acquiring improved and innovative methods for teaching the game of volleyball, derived from his analytical past.
Van Niel earned monumental success with his first effort after he went 17-1, winning the Pacific Northwest National Qualifier and a chance to play at the USA Junior Nationals Open Division. All his success with the program earned him a 2012 Coach of the Year nod.
Throughout his nearly decade-long tenure with Coast Volleyball Club, he concurrently served as an assistant coach for the UC San Diego Men’s volleyball team from 2011 to 2014 and assumed the role of head coach at La Costa High School in 2014.
Moving up the ladder
In 2013, Van Niel earned a spot as the consultant coach and scout for the USA Women’s National Team.
While with the national team, Van Niel leveraged his analytical expertise to contribute to data analysis and game strategy, in addition to providing support during practices.
“At the time, I think analytics were just not as big,” Van Niel said. “Then I just delved in and tried to figure out different things. I’d extract some stuff and create new stats, went to every clinic I could – literally was buying DVDs, anything I could to learn how to teach better and also to dig into the stat side.”
With success in his efforts, Van Niel had the opportunity to assist the team to multiple successful finishes, ultimately earning a position as the scouting coach for the U.S. Women’s National team at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
After he got a taste of the success of coaching, Van Niel did not want to go back to the life of a financer.
“I went on a few (finance-based) interviews and I literally was like sick to my stomach,” Van Niel said. “I left the finance and I was just going to take a sabbatical, (but) then I never went back.”
So, through the connections he made during his time with the national team, Van Niel established ties with the University of Utah’s volleyball program and embarked on his college coaching career.
Under Beth Launiere, Van Niel assisted at Utah for two years before moving to an associate head coach position in 2017.
After one year as the associate head coach for the Utes, Van Niel returned home to his alma mater of USC and took on another associate head coach position under long-time companion Brent Crouch for two years. In 2020, Crouch was succeeded by Brad Keller.
“Then Brad came in and I thought I’d be out of a job,” Van Niel said. “Brad definitely wasn’t behind me, but fortunately for me, he’s literally like a brother to me now, so he kept me on.”
Van Niel spent five years with the Trojans before being offered his first head coach position with the Sun Devils in 2023.
In his inaugural season, he has been dedicated to adopting a fresh coaching approach, one that sets his program apart from most others.
The building blocks of a successful program
Van Niel had built up a unique approach to being a head coach and was enthusiastic about bringing it to a program that truly merited it.
“While you’re in assistance, every town you go (to), every road trip, you’re like, ‘Oh, I want to try to build a program here,’” Van Niel said.
Van Niel maintained a running checklist as he traveled to various towns, marking off each one as he searched for the ideal program to develop.
He found that potential with Arizona State.
Tempe had satisfied Van Niel’s first requirement. Has the program ever had success in its history?
For ASU it was an easy yes. Over the span of the program’s origin in 1973, it has appeared in 18 NCAA Tournaments, reached the Sweet 16 twice, has six American Volleyball Association Coaches recognized All-Americans and several Olympians have passed through its program.
The second requirement, does he want to move himself and his family of five to the area?
“That’s a big one,” Van Niel said. “There are definitely places where I’m like, ‘No, I wouldn’t want to live there.’”
For this California native, the decision to move to The Valley was an easy one.
The third requirement, can the program bring in a strong fanbase?
Unknowingly to most, Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the country – a fact that Van Niel pointed out. With the high number of suburbs, it does not have the same congestion as Los Angeles but has a similar aura, making it easier for fans to travel to Tempe to root on their home team.
The fourth requirement, are there good volleyball programs in the area?
“There’s tons of really good clubs,” Van Niel said. “In fact, most of the clubs in the area actually have ASU alum either owning the club or working with the club.”
This implies that talented young players are consistently evolving within the local community and ASU can establish connections and relationships at an early stage.
The fifth and final requirement, is the administration supportive of its program?
“I felt (that) when I came on the interview, that they were totally in (and) wanted to invest in volleyball and quite frankly, they were really passionate about ASU, which is what you want,” Van Niel said. “You want people that are passionate about it (and) you want your admin passionate about it.”
The administrative support as well as the idea of holding a head coaching position for the Sun Devils pushed Van Niel’s desire to be a part of the program over the edge.
He had to get the position.
One rule: No talking about volleyball
At the end of the Sun Devils 2022 season, Van Niel was officially announced as the ninth head coach of the program.
After he had crossed off all his necessities to building a successful program, he was ready to take his analytical coaching position to the next level.
Instead of being the scouting coach, or the numbers guy for the Sun Devils, he had to be the main guy. The one who runs the program.
This came much easier than when he had first started with Coast Volleyball Club. Now he is a veteran with nearly 17 years under his belt and has honed his own coaching methods, a skill he was once eager to acquire.
Van Niel is direct, but not without being personable. With an analytical background, numbers are never going to be discrete.
For directness to not come off as rudeness, Van Niel diligently focuses on building trust between himself and his players.
“I knew the number one thing for me was (that) I have to invest in the kids and that has to be the number one priority,” Van Niel said. “So, my staff knows there’s gonna be times where I’m gonna give (them) stuff that I need to do administratively because I have to be able to go take (the players) for coffee or I gotta go sit on the bus with them.”
Unlike any coach that I had ever heard stories of, Van Niel takes the time out of his busy work and personal schedule to take players out to coffee and chat in order to grow that trust and connect with each one of them.
Coffee meetings come with one rule, no volleyball talk.
Pure connection and conversation are the essence of these coffee meetings. Van Niel’s goal is to ensure his players’ well-being, not only when they are on the court but also in their lives outside of it.
“I just know that when you’re a head coach you have so many other things that draw you,” Van Niel said. “It’s really easy to push that off and be like ‘Hey, I’ll just connect with her next week’ and then the next thing you know it’s been two months and you haven’t had a coffee or chatted or (asked) how are your mom dad doing, how’s school, anything.”
A unique approach to coaching from someone who transferred from a financial and generally impersonable background.
Van Niel credits his time at Utah where he was the main coach that looked over film with each player individually. Subconsciously, he has been working on the art of making one-on-one connections with his players for a while now.
He also acknowledges USC’s Keller for aiding in the enhancement of his ability to build deeper trust with his players and for teaching him not to be too quick in forming assumptions.
“Brad has always been a relationship guy and I think he’s really, really good at that and really good at empathizing,” Van Niel said. “I could be quick to judge and (be) like, ‘They’re doing this’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, did you ask them why, have you asked what’s going on?’ Well, no. He’s like, ‘You probably should ask first… maybe something else is going on.’”
It is evident that Van Niel’s coaching approach is unique, and he establishes connections with every player on the Sun Devil volleyball team. The players themselves have attested to this.
It takes more than just being a good coach on the court to turn a program around and gain the trust of 15 women. A coach must dedicate their entire self to the program they are leading, a commitment that Van Niel has wholeheartedly embraced.
When that happens, the pieces fall into place.
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